Exit West: Why Magical Realism?

Exit West is a novel full of complexities and commentary on migration, relationships, death, war, loss, and the evolutions of our identities over time. What one has to wonder, amid all these layers, is why Hamid chose magical realism as the framework through which to tell this story. Arguably, he could have written a realistic fiction novel that could tell a distinctly similar narrative–or at least communicate the same themes–without the use of magical doors.

I would claim, however, that magical realism is a critical part of Hamid’s story. Through the clearly fantastical element of the doors, Hamid creates a world that is just removed enough from our reality for him to comment on modern society while maintaining a certain distance from it. It’s not hard to draw connections between Saeed and Nadia’s story and real-world debates around immigration, international tensions, racism, and xenophobia. Hamid does not try to hide those themes, but he also doesn’t comment on them directly. He creates this world that is almost ours, but with the distinct difference of the doors, in order to explore these ideas in a more theoretical context. Exit West is the story of our world, if something were to happen tomorrow that destroyed our notion of nations and borders as we know them. That theoretical gives Hamid room to explore vast societal issues without directly commenting on any current events. It allows him to create a vividly relevant novel without referencing any specific real-world events, which both makes his commentary more powerful–as it can stand on its own, without the need for outside context–and helps the reader maintain a Nabokov-style impersonal imagination throughout the story.

The Power of Self Recognition in “202 Checkmates”

At the end of “202 Checkmates” by Rion Amilcar Scott, the main character of the story–a 12 year old girl–lets her father win a chess game that she could’ve beaten him at, even though he has won and gloated about it the other 201 times they’ve played. Throughout the story, she has been getting better and better at chess by learning from expert players at the park and studying the flaws in her father’s strategy. Her goal has always been to eventually beat him. At the same time, she’s been watching him struggle with unemployment, drinking, and marital issues, while using chess with her as an outlet/distraction from her problem. So, when she is finally poised to beat him at his own game–one move from winning–she decides to throw the game. She realized that he needs that win more than she does. He uses chess to maintain their power dynamic of FATHER/child, in order to comfort his own insecurities about his life and marriage. She is is growing out of that power dynamic, as she seeing her father’s issues and finds her own autonomy. But for her, finding agency and confidence doesn’t have to mean winning. Knowing that she can win is enough, because she is giving herself the recognition she needs, not waiting to get it from her. She outgrew his childish demeanor around chess, and she is willing to let him win the game in order to affirm to herself that she doesn’t need the that recognition to know that she won in the long-term.

Opinions on Nobakov

I wanted to use this post to circle back to a conversation we had in class late last week, where several classmates and I raised our concerns/critiques of Nobakov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers.” I want to reiterate and clarify that, although I understand the need for a framework when reading in a literature class, I deeply disagree with his argument about things “good readers” do. Nobakov says that in order to be a “good reader” one must use an “impersonal imagination,” where they do not see themselves in the story nor connect it to their own life, but instead properly immerse themselves in the world they are reading about. I see where he is coming from here, but I stand by that a key rule of art–maybe the only rule art has–is that the artist gets no say in how people interpret their work. To try and demand how a reader sees your writing is not only impossible, but also somewhat narcissistic. It’s a sign of a god-complex: a hubris large enough to think that an author has the right to control the inner workings of a readers brain. One of the most valuable aspects of art is the variation in how different people interpret the same piece. When Nobakov tries to control how we read, he attacks that aspect of the process, which does a disservice to the readers and to the work itself.